November 3, 2012
Balkan Report Judith Jakaitis, Chicago Chapter Member, Balkans Delegations Member reports on her experiences in the Balkans with the Delegation, June 2012
Judith Jakaitis with President of the American University of Bosnia
As a relatively new member of AWIU, I wanted to find out what the organization was all about. I heard they went on trips as a “delegation”. I was curious as to the function of a delegation. My friend, Robin Odem, told me that a delegation was going to the Balkans in the spring, so I immediately signed up. I was surprised to learn that I had some responsibility to do research and a teleconference report before the trip even left. I became familiar with the history of the former Yugoslavia, and learned about the Balkan wars, and some of the effects on the different countries. The members of the delegation listened to the various reports and discussed the issues in a series of teleconferences before the trip. The trip leaders, Barbara Rubio, and Gayle Morin, organized and facilitated the teleconferences.
I met the other members of the delegation in person when we all arrived in Belgrade, Serbia on June 2nd. We got right into the swing on things, as we got acquainted over a lovely dinner, and then attended “La Traviata” at the opera house on the first evening of our arrival. After that, it was a pretty rigorous schedule of meetings with different organizations that had been arranged by our very passionate leader, Barbara. In the following three weeks we visited 6 countries (Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Hungary). We had about 18 different meetings (mostly in Serbia, BiH, and Hungary) dealing with various issues such as ROMA problems, war recovery, domestic violence, youth leadership groups, and also including meetings with 3 American ambassadors, and two prominent women in Parliament. We really obtained some valuable insight into the social, political and educational aspects of the Balkan countries. The following is a brief summary of the organizations that we met with. It is arranged by category rather than sequence.
In Belgrade, we met at the Autonomous Women’s Center (Belgrade) with its founder, Lepa Miadjenovic. There were women from six different groups who discussed the discrimination of ROMA people and how it affected their children’s education, their medical access, and unemployment. Most of the people were refugees from Kosovo, lived in settlements around the city, and had trouble getting any documentation that would give them any rights in Serbia. Lepa also spent a good deal of time with us describing the war and the sentiments of most of the citizens of Serbia.
In Tuzla, we met with ROMA Women for a Better Future. It is the strongest ROMA organization in BiH and one of the first NGOs that is run by women. They deal with issues on domestic violence, human trafficking, inclusion of children in the schools, teaching of life skills to adults, and educating the people to focus on prevention of abuse. At the time we met, their founder, Indiria Bajramovic, was in Sarajevo presenting an action plan in parliament. Although they have laws against domestic violence, they are not enforced.
In Budapest, we met Agnes Osztolykan, an International Women of Courage awardee in 2010, who is the first and only ROMA woman member of the Hungarian Parliament. She discussed the difficulties of getting any change in policies relating discrimination against ROMA people. She also introduced us to Katalin Barsony, a film maker who founded ROMEDIA and has produced several films depicting the plight of the ROMAs. Her current project is to empower women, and she is teaching them to video themselves in a post on YOUTUBE , “I AM A ROMA WOMAN”.
War Recovery Organizations
We met with Milosch, (Belgrade) a male representative from Women in Black in Belgrade. He belongs to the organization because they support gay rights. He told us that there are many people in Serbia who are anti-war, and do not agree with the government’s policy to take over Kosovo. The goals of the organization are 1.) transitional justice, 2.) security and 3.) insurance of secularism. They wish to “remember and remind” people that Serbia is responsible for the atrocities in Bosnia. They visit some of the victims and bring them sunflowers in order to apologize. Some of their other activities include vigils, publicity, protests, attending the war trials, and giving shadow reports to the UN.
After stopping at the memorial site of the massacre at Srebrenica, we had an emotional visit with the Mothers of Srebrenica. Everyone in the organization had lost at least one, family member in the massacre, some as many as fifty. Their mission is to identify the remains and put them to rest in the memorial site. They also work with the sex victims of the war, help the children who were left without parents, educate them and teach them to learn to love and live together, not to seek revenge. The women work with other organizations and organize conferences all over the world to focus on human rights. They have designated March 8th as Women’s Day, and have an event called “Meet me on the bridge.” Women in Serbia are invited to come and meet.
We visited two BOSFAM shops. (Tuzla and Srebrenica) BOSFAM was started in 1994 by Beba Mubic. She was a school teacher who was taken from her home to a refugee camp in Tuzla. She left her home with nothing, not even a pair of shoes. There were over 1000 women in the camp with nothing to do. She started getting them together to do handicrafts to help heal and to earn some money. She and several others researched how to start an NGO, and the rest is history. They have two outlets where the women work and sell their goods. Most popular are their beautiful, colorful woven rugs. They also have jewelry, knitted hats, gloves, sweaters, and purses. Our delegation had a good time shopping at the stores. The ladies were most gracious and shared some of their stories with us.
Women for Women International (Sarajevo) was started in 1993 by Seida Saric to help refugees in Bosnia. She started with 17 women in the program, by 1998 there were 600 women involved. The women were given $20 a month as living expense as well as education and vocational skills. They learn business and accounting, as well as life skills such as hairdressing, agriculture, and office skills. As of today, over 50,000 women have been helped in eight different conflict areas. One can support a woman for one year for $30 a month.
International Trust Fund to Enhance Human Security (Ljubljana, Slovenia) This organization was established to assist BiH implement the Dayton Agreement. It sets up funds and provides services for de-mining, and to rehabilitate casualties. The organization works in many war torn countries, and are now primarily involved in Libya. We were informed that many think that if a man loses his leg, he keeps his family, but if a woman loses her leg, she loses her family. They have dedicated April 4th as “lend a leg” day. They roll up one pant leg to remind people of the consequences of land mines.
Other Women’s Organizations
We had a meeting at the House for Human Rights (Sarajevo). We talked with women from several organizations in this building. Fondacija CURE is a feminist group to support gender equality. Every year they have a cultural festival called “Pitchwise”, that has art, music, and films that focus on women and women’s rights. There are gender laws in BiH that support women’s rights, but they are not enforced. A group called CARE works with ROMA women, and a group called CURE that is a support group for women with cancer. The building also houses a Helsinki Group that offers free legal aid to women. They have already processed over 10,000 cases.
Zena BiH (Mostar) is an organization that promotes human rights, and is the first NGO in Bosnia to focus on sex trafficking victims of sexual violence. They provide a safe house for women and offer psycho-social help and free legal aid. They have monthly TEA parties to start conversations and give support to the women. They also work with schools and religious groups to bring awareness to the young people.
OKC Ararsevic (Mostar) was founded in 2003 by Kristina Coric. It is the only youth center with no national/ethnic prefix on its name. The center is located on neutral ground in a city that is divided into Catholic and Muslim territories. The purpose of the organization is to bring young Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox together for cultural events such as plays, concerts, art shows, and round table discussions. They are supported by volunteers from two different American organizations. Their motto is “Never Support Negativism”.
In Belgrade, we were invited to attend a rehearsal of a debate by students at the university, who belonged to Open Communication Network. They practiced in English the British Parliamentary Style of debate. The topic was “Should reparation be paid to women for the injustices done in the past”. It was a very lively and entertaining debate, and it was fun to see the passion of the young students. We admit that we were a bit biased in our judgement of the debate as we voted for the con argument that it does not solve the problem of giving women equality.
We visited the beautiful new American University in BiH (Sarajevo). The president of the university and several professors explained the program to us. , Denis Picic told us that originally students were sent to the U.S. to school. In 2006 they started plans with the Rochester Institute of Technology to build a campus in Sarajevo. The school was finished in 2009, and in 2010, the first class of 18 students graduated. In 2012, one hundred students graduated and 64% of them were women. The university teaches in English and American style classes. They teach business, finance, management, law and information technology. The student body is multi-ethnic, and they provide social activities to foster better understanding. They also encourage work and travel in other countries, especially the U.S. They are trying to get U. S. accreditation for the school.
Other Individuals We Met
Gordona Comic is a Member of the National Assembly and Deputy Speaker of the House in Belgrade. She is a very dynamic, humorous, warm and entertaining woman. She got involved in politics when she was 22 years old. In BiH, it is the law that one third of the members of parliament are women. She said that they work together as women, across party lines to get things accomplished. There is still a need for laws against discrimination and violence, and the laws they do have are not easily enforced. Gordona inspired us with several of her quotes such as: “Be the change you want to see,”, “No need to think outside the box, there is no box.” and she said that a woman may ask “What should I do?’, a man may ask “What will I be?’, and her response is “What shall I do to be something?’
Ambassador Mary Bruce Warlick, U.S Ambassador to Serbia. Her husband is the Ambassador to Bulgaria, Ambassador Warlick gave us a lot of information about Serbia. The Serbs are anxious to join the EU, but they need to resolve their issues with Kosovo first. Serbia is going through some very tough economic times now with unemployment upwards of 25%. The mission of the U.S. is to help develop and manage programs, and help with party reform and restitution. We help with judicial reforms, police and military training, as well as USAID. We also sponsor a high school exchange program.
Ambassador Patrick S. Moon, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ambassador Moon discussed the U. S. role now is to integrate BiH into the European Nation and NATO. They work with the political leaders, and also give long term assistance. They also train youth and promote volunteerism. They also focus on the participation of women in all politics and in the private sector. One of the difficulties is the Tri Partite Presidency that was established under the Dayton Accord. BiH has three presidents and they rotate on an eight month term. The politicians work for themselves and their party, and do not represent the people very well. Ambassador Moon sees hope for the future in the youth of the country.
In conclusion, this report is just a very brief summary of the groups and individuals that we met with who helped us understand the problems and issues that the people in the Balkan countries are dealing with. After three weeks of intense meetings, interesting sight seeing, gourmet dining, and lively discussions, I returned home exhausted, enlightened, and excited. I was inspired and awed by the courageous and dedicated women that we encountered on our trip. I was also very happy to have formed some new friendships with the wonderful women of AWIU.